*Sleigh Tracks in the Snow*
“The power’s going to be out for a while.” Embry leaned his forearm against the crossbuck door and peered through the curtains. “Don’t see anything out there but snow, snow, and more snow. Don’t think the rest of the guys will be over.”
“Might be days before they get it back on.” Jacob lit another old-fashioned glass oil lamp and set it on the battered trunk serving double duty as storage and a coffee table.
“Crap! I just made the cocoa!” Bella exclaimed, stumbling around in the kitchen. “What do you mean days?”
Jake caught her before she could faceplant and drop all the mugs, and set her on the couch between Quil and Paul.
“I’ll get it. Just stay there, would ya? You’re gonna kill yourself.” He retrieved the tray of mismatched, steaming mugs and set it carefully on the trunk before dropping into the creaky recliner to one side of the fireplace.
Scowling, Bella drew in a breath. “I will n—”
“Yes, you will.” Paul put his hand over her mouth. “Just sit still. We can see in the dark—you can’t. We know where the beer is.”
“On the back porch. Gotta keep the refrigerator door shut while the power is off.” Seth shook his finger at her from across the room.
“And don’t flush the toilet!” Leah shook her head and huffed as she threw a few more logs on the fire. “Every time the power goes out, I hear my mother’s voice in my head yelling that down the hall, even if she isn’t home at the time.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Bella yanked Paul’s hand away from her mouth and punched him in the shoulder.
Paul grabbed her hands and kissed her knuckles. “Ha! Says the girl who’s always lived in town and had city water!”
Leah dusted off her hands and plopped into the matching squeaky recliner across from Jacob. “Most of the houses here have wells. When there’s no electricity, there’s no water. If you flush the toilet, the tank won’t refill.”
“Unless you happened to know the power was going to go out and filled up the tub to save some water.” As dark as it was, Seth’s grin still gleamed brightly. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.”
Jacob sang out, “If it’s brown, flush it down!”
Bella scrunched up her nose. “Ew. You guys are gross.”
“Yeah, babe, you city folks don’t have to make those kind of sacrifices just to survive.” Paul tugged Bella into his side and kissed her head. “It’s just some of the fun things we deal with here.”
“Or anybody living in outlying areas. It’s worse up in the mountains.” Jacob leaned back in the recliner. “Since you live in Forks, they get the power back on pretty quick. Out here … not so much. And it depends on how many trees are down. That’s why almost every house here has a wood stove or fireplace.” He crossed his legs at his ankles and positioned his hands behind his head. “Some have kerosene heaters.”
“Then I should head home. Charlie will worry about me.” Bella started to get up off the couch and Paul hauled her back.
“No, ya don’t. No telling where trees might be down in the road or you’ll wreck your truck and spend our first Christmas together in the hospital. I’d rather not screw it up. It’ll be my first good Christmas.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, kissing his cheek. “I guess your dad …?”
“He was an asshole. Things are better since he left, and even better now.”
“Relax, Bella.” Embry chided her. He had retrieved a chair from the kitchen and placed it by the sagging, avocado green couch. “Besides, Charlie would shoot us all if we let you drive in this blizzard and kill yourself.”
Quil cracked open the beer Embry handed to him. “You’re always going to the hospital but gunshot wounds wouldn’t be such a good holiday memory.” When Bella settled back into Paul’s arms, Quil raised his drink to her in a silent toast. “Smart girl.”
“Speaking of Christmas and blizzards,” Jacob began, “there was the one Christmas I remember the power was out for a week. Mom made her extra special red and green Christmas pancakes on top of the woodstove. Instead of a big ol’ ham for dinner, Dad cooked deer burgers on the grill. Red ketchup and green pickles made them really Christmas-y.”
“I remember that winter,” Leah said, eyes going soft as she looked off into her memories. “The snow was so deep that year. Mom made snow ice cream.” Chuckling, she peered over at Seth sitting against the wall by the entrance to the kitchen. “The baby didn’t want the plain vanilla so Dad snuck some red food coloring in his and told him it was strawberry.”
“That was the best strawberry ice cream I ever had!” Seth had grabbed a mug of cocoa and raised it in the air. “I think that was the year I got the snow saucer as a present and Leah tried to break my neck.”
“I did not!” Leah snatched the little pillow from behind her back and threw it at him. “Not my fault you couldn’t steer the thing around a tree!”
“I was four years old!” He zipped it right back at her.
She caught it handily and propped it on the arm of the chair and slumped over onto it. “But you learned how to lean and steer it!”
Bella was laughing along with everyone else. “What is this? Not-Quite Christmas Memories?” She patted Paul’s hand and wove her fingers through his. “I don’t ever remember a white Christmas, but Renee tried hard to make it a little festive—even without the snow.” She sighed and snuggled into his warm side. “There was the not-quite chocolate pudding pie. Hers ended up being more Cool Whip than pudding because she spilled half of it down the sink. It still tasted good. But then there was the time she said we had to have some hot cocoa, but we didn’t have any of those instant packets.” She groaned and hid her face in her hands. “She used regular baking cocoa—the powdered stuff without sugar? It was awful!” She started laughing all over again. “Hot milk with bitter brown lumps floating in it. She didn’t even add sugar!”
“Oh, no!” Embry snickered from the other side of Quil. “That I know about. My mom made a chocolate cake from scratch one year. I dipped a spoon in the can of cocoa when she wasn’t looking …” His nose wrinkled with his grimace. “It was pretty nasty. The cake wasn’t much better.”
They all roared at the disgusted face Embry made.
Wiping away tears of laughter, Embry looked down at Quil. “Hey man, you’ve been awfully quiet. Are you sick?”
“Uh, no.” Quil had slumped down on the couch and when Embry poked his shoulder, he pushed himself up and sat his beer on the old trunk. “I was just thinking about my Dad.”
“Sorry, man.” Paul patted his shoulder while Bella reached for his hand.
“I’m sorry, Quil.” She wrapped her fingers around his. “And you, too, Leah and Seth. Jacob. I guess Christmas can be not so … jolly sometimes.”
Quil shared a somber look with the three—all of them having lost a parent. After a moment, Quil pressed his lips into a straight line and then sighed. “Sometimes.” He ran his hand over his head and stared directly ahead into the crackling fire. “But it reminds me of one of my best memories, too. It was the Christmas before he died …”
With an encouraging touch of her hand, Bella leaned toward him and softly said, “You don’t have to tell us.”
“I know I don’t have to, but I want to.” He placed his hand over hers. “You know, we never had much, but Mom and Dad always tried to give me something nice. That year, there had been just a dusting of snow on Christmas Eve, but I was still excited about it. I was hoping for lots of snow because I just knew Santa was going to bring that toboggan I asked for.”
He sighed again. “Well, Mom and Dad got me some new boots and mittens, and some Hot Wheels, and Santa brought me that toboggan. I couldn’t wait to go outside and try it. Mom said she would make us a big brunch and have it ready when we came in. We got halfway across the yard, and she yelled out the back door and asked if I had my scarf. I turned around to show her, and saw the marks on the roof. I just stood there and stared at them. There were parallel tracks through the snow like Santa had set his sleigh down and slid up to the chimney. I ran back toward the house to get a better look. There were big foot prints, and I swear there were reindeer hoof prints, too.”
A melancholy smile teased the corners of his mouth. “That was the only year I ever saw them. Either I was too young to notice before, or there wasn’t any snow. After that …” he trailed off and swallowed against the lump in his throat. “You know, for a long time afterward, I believed those tracks were made by the runners on Santa’s sleigh. It wasn’t until years later I realized my Dad must have done it. We got the perfect amount of snow, and he climbed up on the roof, in the middle of the night, and made those tracks so I would see proof of Santa Claus.”
“Awww.” Bella took his hand and pressed it to her cheek while Paul gave the back of his neck a little squeeze.
“Sorry, man.” Embry’s hand dropped to Quil’s shoulder.
Jacob pulled his recliner upright and leaned forward. “You never told us that story before, Quil.”
“Well, it was kind of like a secret I kept for myself, you know? Then it made me kind of sad because Dad was gone.” He looked around at everyone, his eyes stopping on Leah and Seth. “I know it’s tough. Even though Christmas can be a real bummer sometimes, there are those good memories. Seeing those tracks was almost better than getting the toboggan. He did that for me.” He gulped. “It’s happy and sad all at the same time.”
Jacob stood from the chair and handed around the mugs of cocoa. He raised his and a bittersweet smile spread across his face “To green and red pancakes.”
Seth stood beside him and reached for his sister’s hand as she pushed herself up from the chair. “To fake strawberry snow ice cream.”
The rest of the group of friends joined them, silently lifting their mugs. As one, eyes bright with their memories, they turned to Quil.
Uncomfortably, he cleared his throat and carefully touched each mug with his own. “To sleigh tracks in the snow.”